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Domestic contracts and separation agreements - Interpretation - Practice and procedure - Orders - Variation or amendment of orders - Changed circumstances

Thursday, September 15, 2016 @ 8:00 PM  


Appeal by the husband from a decision dismissing his application for increased spousal support and the fixing of child support arrears to be paid by the wife. The parties married in 1989, had two children, and separated in 2006. Shortly after the birth of the parties’ first child, the husband took on the role of primary child care provider and homemaker while the wife worked full-time outside of the home. The husband had not worked full-time since 1993. Following separation, the parties executed a separation agreement. The wife’s income was stated to be $65,068, and the parties agreed the wife would pay the husband $1,017 per month in spousal support. The agreement provided for a review of spousal support if the wife had a material change in her income. Following separation, the wife’s overall income increased. The wife claimed that this was because she increased the number of hours she worked to earn enough money to pay for the children’s education. The chambers judge found that the parties intended and agreed that there would be no upward adjustment in quantum regardless of any increases in the wife’s income and, accordingly, held the spousal support review provision was not triggered. She also found it was in the parties’ contemplation that the wife’s income would increase if she accepted more work. The husband submitted the judge erred in her interpretation of the agreement’s spousal support provisions and in declining to award retroactive child support prior to the date of effective notice of his claim.

HELD: Appeal dismissed. The chambers judge did not err in her interpretation of the separation agreement by limiting the basis for review of spousal support to a material reduction in the wife’s income. There was no extricable legal error in the judge’s contractual interpretation analysis. She engaged in the requisite interpretive exercise, reviewing the contract as a whole and considering the plain meaning of its words in order to ascertain the parties’ objectively expressed intention. She considered the meaning of a “material change in her income” in the context of the whole agreement, including the references to an intended final settlement of spousal support and the precise quantum of income and support. Nothing suggested that she ignored any aspect of the factual matrix or failed to apply a relevant factor or test mandated by the agreement or its legal context. The chambers judge did not misapprehend the evidence or make findings that were unsupported. The judge did not err in limiting the retroactive child support award to the date of effective notice of his counterclaim. The judge fully appreciated the criteria for consideration on an application for retroactive child support. Nothing suggested that the judge forgot, ignored or misconceived evidence in any material way. The judge acknowledged the husband’s learning disability and carefully reviewed the parties’ respective financial circumstances.